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AECOM Tests Wastewater for COVID-19

Monday, January 4, 2021

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Last month, infrastructure consulting firm AECOM announced that it would be partnering with Northern New Jersey-based Bergen County Utilities Authority and Columbia University (New York City) to monitor COVID-19 ribonucleic acid (RNA) in wastewater in the BCUA sewer shed.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wastewater testing can be a leading indication of coronavirus infection rates when the trends of COVID-19 RNA are monitored over time.

COVID-19 in Wastewater

Not the first time that researchers looked to wastewater to track the virus, in May 2020, researchers from the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute announced that they had developed a new approach to monitoring regional levels of SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19.

Led by Professor Rolf Halden, who directs the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering and teaches in ASU’sSchool for Sustainability and the Built Environment, and Olga Hart, lead author of the new study and a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Health Engineering, the team was developing a new monitoring approach for the novel coronavirus, among other dangerous pathogens and chemical agents, in wastewater.

In their redefined method, known as wastetwater-based epidemiology, the researchers collected sewage samples so that clues could be analyzed over human health, and could even detect levels of coronavirus infection at both a local and global scale. The high sensitivity of the type of study was also reported to have the potential to detect the signature of a single infected individual among 100 to 2 million persons.

ktsimage / Getty Images

Last month, infrastructure consulting firm AECOM announced that it would be partnering with Northern New Jersey-based Bergen County Utilities Authority and Columbia University (New York City) to monitor COVID-19 ribonucleic acid (RNA) in wastewater in the BCUA sewer shed.

The process works by first transcribing coronavirus RNA into complementary DNA (cDNA) by the reverse transcriptase enzyme, then amplifying the resultant DNA to improve signal detection. This step is followed by the use of sequencing techniques to confirm viral presence in the wastewater samples.

When probing for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the wastewater is screened for the presence of the virus’ nucleic acid fragments. The RNA genomes are amplified through a process known as reverse-transcriptase quantitative PCR (RT qPCR).

According to ASU at the time, the research method was on the path for real-time monitoring of disease outbreaks, resistant microbes, levels of drug use or health indicators of diabetes, obesity and other maladies.

Using this type of monitoring system, along with RT qPCR, researchers predict that they could detect the coronavirus with high sensitivity, simply by monitoring roughly every 1 in 114 individuals in in the worst-case scenario and just one positive case among 2 million noninfected individuals under optimum conditions. The information collected would be able to help pinpoint viral hotspots so that resources could better be directed to vulnerable populations, while restrictions could be eased in virus-free regions.

Halden reports that using the ASU-designed screening, roughly 70% of the U.S. population could be screened for SARS-CoV-2 through monitoring the country’s 15,014 wastewater treatment plants at an estimated cost for chemical reagents of $225,000.

The research was conducted through a partnership between the university and the City of Tempe, Arizona, and has since been published in an issue of the journal, Science of the Total Environment. The research team also created OneWaterOneHealth, a nonprofit project of the ASU Foundation that seeks to bring COVID-19 testing to those who currently cannot afford it.

The following month, the United States Environmental Protection Agency announced that its researchers had indicated that monitoring wastewater for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 could prove successful as a sensitive early indicator of an of an infected community. Due to this discovery, the EPA and the CDC began developing and applying methods for measuring SARS-CoV-2 levels in wastewater over a six-month pilot project.

The research was slated to be conducted the city of Cincinnati, where it has combined and non-combined sewer systems.

“Current efforts are directed to develop best practices for using wastewater surveillance data as part of a data-driven, weight-of-evidence approach to helping make public health decisions,” said Jay Garland, PhD, and lead researcher on the wastewater surveillance project at the time.

Kevin Oshima, PhD, a lead researcher for wastewater monitoring and detection added that, “It is important to understand SARS-CoV-2 levels in wastewater from an infectivity perspective which is also a focus of our research.”

Through testing and evaluating the wastewater, Garland says researchers will know how long the virus lives in waste, how to test sewage consistently for the virus, and how to consider wastewater systems where sewage is diluted by industrial waste or stormwater before reaching a treatment plant.

In addition to wastewater monitoring, EPA officials began looking at effective cleaning and disinfection, along with public health strategies like testing and social distancing. To do so, researchers assessed the use of EPA-approved disinfectants against SARS-CoV-2 on difficult to disinfect surfaces like fabric, various soft and porous materials and even personal protective equipment, as well as determined best environmental sample collection methods and evaluating longer-lasting microbial disinfectants and application methods for frequently touched surfaces.

According to the EPA, possible approaches could also involve alternative methods to kill viruses such as ultraviolet light, ozone, and steam, and promising disinfectant application methods such as electrostatic sprayers or foggers.

In July, Wen Zhang, associate professor of civil engineering from University of Arkansas was awarded $40,000 through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, to study wastewater to help community leaders better understand the prevalence of the disease in their area.

Zhang’s study not only focuses on collecting wastewater samples to test for evidence of the virus, but also seeks to develop a method of estimating spread of COVID-19 in communities based on the concentration of the virus found in wastewater.

“Given the shortage of COVID-19 test kits, this can be particularly helpful to estimate the spread of the disease in a community, because asymptomatic individuals who are not tested could also excrete the virus and release them into wastewater,” she said.

“By detecting the virus in wastewater, we hope to utilize this information to estimate the most affected communities. It will provide information about the virus spread without testing every individual person in the community. And hopefully this information can assist the state and public to make future decisions combating the pandemic.”

The scope of Zhang’s project, which was already underway at the time of the announcement, is slated to last one year, and was expected to have results by the fall of 2020.

AECOM Testing

While AECOM announced the partnership at the beginning of December, the first phase of the project was reported to have launched in the spring where research teams collected, tested and analyzed more than 650 samples at the Little Ferry Water Pollution Control Facility six days per week at six different points within the plant and at various points within the sewer collection system.

The facility is in Bergen County, New Jersey, which sits across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

“We’re honored to partner with Bergen County Utilities Authority and Columbia University to leverage this innovative approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic,” said Lara Poloni, AECOM’s president. “Our wastewater experts are working alongside our partners to establish sampling regiments, analyze test results, and present data that can inform public health decisions and help our communities.”

Following initial testing, researchers then conducted molecular testing—specifically, RT-qPCR testing—to determine the COVID-19 RNA concentrations and statistical analysis was performed to develop time series trends that correlated to actual reported cases. The results indicated that wastewater monitoring statistically provides a seven- to ten-day leading indicator of reported COVID-19 cases.

“Wastewater testing provides objective evidence that does not rely on individuals getting tested, giving us an anonymous overall picture of community health,” said Julien Neals, Bergen County Administrator. “By continuing to partner with AECOM and Columbia University on this program’s expansion, we will be able to conduct a more comprehensive, systematic study that gives us the best available data to help determine emerging hotspots, inform public policy, and assist with the creation of infrastructure to evaluate vaccine effectiveness, once it is available to the public.”

Through the partnership, researchers hope that wastewater COVID-19 RNA testing will deliver valuable, early information around trends in infection rates and provide advantages in tracking hot spots and developing proactive mitigation strategies. The project also aims to equip public health and emergency management officials with a continuous method of community monitoring to inform decisions around social distancing protocols, shelter-in-place orders, targeted testing, reopening strategies, and vaccine deployment.

“Through our work with BCUA and Columbia University, we have seen impressive results demonstrating that wastewater testing provides an early signal of infection rates,” said Paul Storella, senior vice president with AECOM’s water business. “This critical program may assist government officials, first responders, and communities proactively manage surges in COVID-19 cases up to two weeks ahead of spikes.”

AECOM, BCUA, and Columbia University report that they will continue this work as the program is expanded.


Tagged categories: AECOM; COVID-19; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Health & Safety; Health and safety; NA; North America; Research and development; Testing + Evaluation; Wastewater Plants; Water/Wastewater

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (1/4/2021, 10:50 AM)

This seems like a really great approach - early, inexpensive and effective outbreak tracking.

Comment from Michael Halliwell, (1/5/2021, 10:29 AM)

Shows good promise as a public health monitor. Obviously not able to provide individual results for quarantine and contact tracing, but able to detect across the population as a whole (including untested and asymptomatic individuals). One more arrow in the quiver.

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